KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Medical Isotope Shortage Hurts Hospitals And Disrupts Medical Tests

Reuters reports that "a North American shortage of medical isotopes has forced many U.S. hospitals to begin rationing scores of diagnostic tests, and doctors said on Friday they see no quick solution." The shortage is due to last month's shut down of a "nuclear reactor in eastern Ontario that produces a third of the world's supply of medical isotopes, used in scans to check for an impending heart attack or see if cancer has spread." Reuters notes that "the Canadian plant is one of five aging reactors worldwide -- none located in the United States -- to produce molybdenum-99, the most commonly used medical isotope. The rapidly decaying substance has a shelf life of just 67 hours, making it impossible to stockpile."

Rationing has started at three hospitals at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles as well as other hospitals. Doctors at the University of Chicago Medical Center are recommending "diagnostic tests that do not rely on this medical isotope but may not be as good and may cost more." USC's Dr. Peter Conti said "a prolonged shortage could threaten clinical trials for cancer drugs because patients may not be able to get needed scans on schedule, forcing them to drop out."" He also said doctors at USC are performing only the most urgent tests, typically for heart scans, that tests to check if cancer has spread to bones "have gone by the wayside," and that some cancer patients will be switched to more expensive positron emission tomography scans, known as PET scans. "The test is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but is not covered by Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled," Reuters notes.

"The Society of Nuclear Medicine said 91 percent of 375 members including doctors and nuclear medicine technicians at hospitals across the nation reported in an e-mail survey this week that they had been affected by the shortage, with 60 percent postponing procedures and 31 percent canceling some," Reuters reports. According to the news outlet: "Dr. Robert Atcher, president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, said the nearest-term solution would be to accelerate a U.S. Department of Energy plan to convert a research reactor at the University of Missouri to medical isotopes production. Without added capacity and a stable domestic supply, he said, patients will be at risk" (Steenhuysen, 6/12). This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.